Music by Phill Niblock
Soldier String Quartet, Eberhard Blum / bass flute, Susan Stenger / flute
Partitas for Long Strings
Paul Panhuysen / long strings
Minimalism lives… or something like minimalism, anyway, although these two discs find it much transformed from the minimalist strategies with which we think we’re coolly familiar. Out go the iterative processes (there wasn’t really anywhere to go with them) and the hammering arpeggios (they never sounded much good anyway); in come long, slow-moving forms or un-forms or ur-forms. Niblock and Panhuysen, of course, approach their huge blocks of sound in entirely different ways.
Phill Niblock’s music is about the grainy detail which emerges from long, rich sounds heard together. He is fascinated, it seems, by difference tones and harmonics, and the two pieces presented on this disc explore the small-scale complexities which emerge when sustained sounds from acoustic, live instruments are combined.
If that sounds like a slight idea, this music will surprise you. The massed layers each involve a single note moving extremely slowly in pitch, and the combined effect changes constantly. As with all the best art made from minimal materials, it amazes with its sheer range. Once the music takes hold of you (it helps to play it very loud), it’s irresistable, revealing a world of detail rather like that discovered by the first users of microscopes.
It goes without saying that music like this is terribly hard to play. The Soldier Quartet play with headphones feeding them their notes — sine waves (or something similar) which shift slowly in pitch as each piece unfolds. They do so with iron resolve and no small amount of daring; it must have been terrifying to approach the end of the forty-five minute “Early Winter” and know that a mistake or even a dodgy quaver in the articulation could well mean that the whole thing had to be done again. In fact, the performances here are impeccable, and the music which results shimmers with its own very peculiar loveliness.
Paul Panhuysen’s Partitas are an entirely different kettle of fish, although the first piece here bears some striking similarities in sound. The strings heard here are gallery installations centring on wires stretched across the space, with or without the addition of resonators and automated exciters. Panhuysen is therefore as much a part of the artworld as of avant garde music, and one could easily suspect this disc of being one of those “documentation” projects which never really sound good unless you know the larger work of which the sound is a part.
There’s no fear of this here, however, and what these recordings demonstrate is that Panhuysen is at least as much a musician as he is an artist. There are three here, all lengthy (over twenty minutes) examinations of a particular tuning method: unison, equally diminishing and proportional.
The unison piece is the one which resonates with Niblock’s quartets. It’s even more minimal, however; there’s almost no perceptible change in the buzz-saw note the strinngs produce for the entire duration. As with Niblock, one becomes fascinated by the detail, although here it’s more a matter of trying to be sufficiently attentive that any change is audible at all. The experience is one which will be familiar to lovers of so-called “lowercase” music; it won’t be to all tastes, but it’s an interesting journey.
Things take a radically different turn when the strings are tuned in equally diminishing lenths. The intervals between them are intensely dissonant, and they are played much more actively, with notes audibly cming and going and with harmonics creating clouds of ultra-high pitches above the throbbing beat frequencies of the fundamentals. This will be much more approachable for most listeners, and anyone familiar with Ligeti or Penderecki will hear their ancestral voice in this.
The sheer texture of the sound here is ravishingly fine-grained and, as with much minimal art, one is drawn to an unaccustomed involvement with the detailed aesthetic surface of the material itself. On a more conventional level, however, this is carefully-played and distinctive music which sucks you in and doesn’t let you go.
The third piece, which uses a proportional tuning system, is similar to the second, but there is a distinct differentiation — and how this is achieved is a mystery — between extreme dissonances and a rather cool set of semi-consonant intervals. Again it shifts about restlessly, but there is a much greater sense here that the music is anchored. Indeed, this feels like the most musicanly of the three pieces here; that’s not to be taken evaluatively, of course.
These are two hugely impressive releases from XI records. Both come with copious sleeve notes and are impeccably recorded. If this kind of thing is anywhere near your radar, snap them up. Richard Cochrane